Time to clean up our act (Photo by Natalie Behring for Bloomberg)
Time to clean up our act (Photo by Natalie Behring for Bloomberg)

Let’s forget about climate change.

WHAT??! I hear you gasp. But that’s all she’s been able to talk about ever since she got back from Kiribati. Is she having a crisis of faith?

No, I’m not. Nor am I caving in under pressure from negative comments on this blog. If 100+ days on the ocean couldn’t break my spirit, then a few naysayers don’t bother me.

All I’m saying is that from now on, my stance is going to be officially pro-sustainability rather than anti-climate change. You might think this is just playing on words, but there are two important points to be made here.

1. Focus on the positive

Regular readers might remember the mini-epiphany I had during the last stage of my row – that we need to focus on the solution rather than the problem. Click here to refresh your memory.

To quote Mother Teresa: “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.” I am going to take a leaf out of that wise woman’s book, and suggest that we focus on what we DO want rather than what we DON’T want.

2. Pulling Together

For certain people, “climate change” has become an emotionally charged phrase. Reading certain comments posted on this site, and possibly the comments of Lord Monckton, it seems they perceive a global conspiracy to overthrow capitalism and democracy. They think that climate campaigners are scamming the public to line their own pockets (I can’t speak for every campaigner, but I can assure you that my pockets are most decidedly empty – and you can ask my unimpeachable mother if you doubt me). They see environmental campaigning being used as a vehicle for self-promotion and aggrandisement.

There is little to be gained by engaging in a tit-for-tat exchange of defense and counter-attack. The personal comments are just a distraction from striving towards a solution. So we’ll move swiftly on.

Both believers and deniers point at the statistics to back up their arguments. Well, we all know there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, and it is generally possible to find evidence to support any preconceived point of view. We are bombarded with so much information that it can be bewildering to try and make sense of it all, so our natural tendency is to apply filters and see only what we want to see.

Even some of my best friends are climate change deniers – and yes, I do still speak to them. They have done their research, considered the facts, and arrived at a different conclusion. I respect that. They are at least engaged, informed, and conscious. Provided that they respect me and my beliefs, then I will extend them the same courtesy.

Too much time and energy has been expended, by both sides, on attacking each other’s facts and each other’s champions. Instead of uniting mankind against a common enemy, “climate change” has instead become a divisive issue just at the time when we are most in need of unity.

So let’s forget it. Hopefully I can show that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether we believe in climate change or not – that we still actually want the same things.

Let’s instead focus on these questions:

1.    Do we agree that we live on a finite earth, and are unlikely to colonise any other planets in the near future?
2.    The first oil was drilled in 1859, just 150 years ago. We have now used around half of it. In 1996 the oil industry estimated we had only 45 years left – at 1996 rates of consumption. But consumption is escalating. Even if you think these figures are pessimistic, do we agree that oil reserves must at some point run out, given that they are a non-renewable resource?
3.    Does anybody enjoy inhaling exhaust fumes? Have you read about the appalling air quality in some Chinese cities – largely due to coal-fired power plants? Would you want to live there? If you live in LA, are you happy about the fact that 25% of your air pollution comes from China?
4.    Would you prefer that your country (whatever country that may be) is engaged in sustainable industries based on renewable energy sources? Or would you prefer that investment continues to flow into industries that depend on energy and fuel sources that must one day run out?
5.    Would you prefer that your country (again, whatever country that may be) is at the leading edge of innovation, a global leader? Or would you prefer to see your economy overtaken by other nations that preferred to invest in industries that will be sustainable, not just in the long term, but in the forever term (or at least as long as the sun continues to shine)?

So let’s raise the tone of the debate. Too often at the moment we look like schoolchildren squabbling over a toy – our most precious toy, the Earth. And the danger is that as we pull in opposite directions in our global tug of war, the Earth will end up broken – or at least unable to sustain human life. That is the worst case scenario – or maybe, from the Earth’s point of view, the best.

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32 Comments

  • I think you are at the forefront of a change in climate – the climate of thought about the environment. I have seen a few signs over recent months that others are taking the same view. People are placing more emphasis on what they were doing before climate change became the all-encompassing issue.

    It is quite possible (whatever you think about man-made climate change) that we will see some cooler years or at least no further rise in temperature for a while. That will make it harder to get support for the view that the only thing that matters is reducing CO2. You are absolutely right to move the debate to what everyone agrees is important to achieve.

    Well said.

  • Yup, I agree wholeheartedly…”climate change” is too difficult to see, given our day-to-day perception.

    However, sustainable venture is an undeniable best practice. It made perfect sense to me when I was enthralled by your latest rowing adventure.

    Rozta’ Bill

  • That was soooo perfect!! My brain keeps going back to that Walt Disney move Walle (great movie). It brings up a good point. All the trash we are producing in the world. I know the movie took it to the extreme but we do have a problem. Thanks for focusing on the cleanup effort Roz. You are awesome.

  • Those that criticize others ,only need to look at themselves, there in the problem lies.Excellent effort Roz!All the strength to you today,AmyinAustin

  • Thanks, all, for the positive feedback on this blog. I’m glad it resonated.

    At the risk of mentioning a Problem rather than a Positive, I just came across this article saying that The world is much closer to running out of oil than official estimates admit: http://bit.ly/4Xj8P. So this just backs up my point that, climate change or no climate change, the days of oil are numbered – and we’d be wise to look to a world post-fossil-fuel.

  • I respectfully disagree.

    Sustainability is a paradigm I cherish. If respected and embraced _universally_, it would go a long way to averting catastrophic global warming.

    But ‘sustainability’ is a word that is now used so broadly that it is nearly devoid of useful meaning. Stand up for “sustainability” and you aren’t really standing up for anything (specific) at all.

    You may make no enemies being “pro-sustainability”, but you won’t achieve meaningful reform, either.

    The “sustainability” movement allows the proponent to pick from a cafeteria of issues and feel good about himself, while ignoring other aspects of his life that are unsustainable. (“Yeah I’m green — I take my refillable water bottle with me when I drive to the gym.”)

    Globally, it wouldn’t make a lick of difference if 86% of the world became “sustainable”, if the other 14% of the world were permitted to keep extracting coal and oil at the same rate as the richest 7% of the world’s population does today (going by the numbers in your Twitter feed).

    Knowing the solution is pointless if you don’t address the problem.

    If we don’t truly believe in global warming, it’s not ethical to tell the other 14% they shouldn’t keep using coal and oil. The truth of human-caused global warming is at the crux of the environmental case for sustainability. Otherwise we’re only talking about fashion, and have no legitimate basis for criticizing others’ practice.

    The atmosphere doesn’t care how many people live sustainably. It doesn’t care what your bumper stickers say. It cares how much carbon is being dug out of the ground and burned.

    On this point you lit a fire under me by introducing us to http://www.350.org

    Our planet’s most pressing problem is getting CO2 (and its climate forcing equivalents) under control. Maybe “sustainability” is a means to that end. But without that concrete goal (350 ppm) as a standard by which to judge each proposal, we’ll move too slowly, and too often in the wrong direction.

    Keep your eye on the ball. If you aren’t addressing the problem, you aren’t addressing the problem.

  • Address the problem. Focus on the solution. AND continue to be the inspiration you are, so that people will listen to what you say, NOT because you are a screamer, but because you are a DOER.

    Yes, stay positive. Focus on what you can DO. What you ARE doing. What you have brought to the front by your rows. Keep going. Keep going.

    We are listening. Others are too. Not so much only to the screamers, but to you, the doers. People listened to Mother Teresa and she made a difference. Likewise to Ghandi. Stay positive.

    Go Roz Go!

    Cheers,
    Laurey

  • The think about sustainability is that is gives ordinary, non-political activist people a place to start that isn’t intimidating or seemingly useless.

    To most folks, achieving CO2 reduction goals sounds like something that is completely out of our control.

    (Speaking from the point of view of Ordinary Citizen): I have no influence over China and big manufacturers. I don’t have any influence in lawmaking or regulation. The guy I voted for didn’t win and the politicians don’t listen to my input when I bother to write. I can’t make people stop driving their cars. There’s no fighting all those crazies who say climate change is all a hoax — they just scream you down when you try to be reasonable. CO2 levels are an unstoppable avalanche at this point.

    (Now from the point of view of Ordinary Citizen introduced to sustainability efforts): There are so many small things I can do on my own. I don’t need all that stuff I’ve been buying. I can use my own reusable container when I order to-go food. I can hang my laundry to dry on a clothesline. I don’t have to drive to work every day. I can encourage my friends, family and coworkers to do similar things. I can make it my goal to add as little to landfill and recycle as much as I possibly can. Maybe we can start heading in a direction that will improve things. All of these positive actions have made me feel great. I like knowing that I can make a difference. Maybe I can get more involved on the bigger issues.

  • “Am I an eco-bore?”

    I think the short answer is “No, but ….”

    We live in an era where things are CONSTANTLY being marketed to us. Shopping opportunities, political attitudes, religious beliefs, did I mention shopping opportunities? Every moment of every day, someone is telling us what to do with our time, and our money, and our brain cells. At a certain point “compassion fatigue” sets in, and we no longer want people dictating to us how we should feel and think about things. Because of this, I think a MUCH more effective strategy than preaching about things, is to simply adopt a policy of “leadership by example.” In addition to all the marketing, our world is also characterized by a dearth of truly effective role models, and I think that most people are instantly aware of, and impressed by low-key leaders who can demonstrate (by their actions) what others should be doing.

    I’m sure that other Rozlings will have a different take on this, but this concept of “leadership by example” is what captures my attention, and I don’t need a lot of words (“Words are cheap”, as the saying goes) to tell me what I should be doing or feeling.

    Or, as they say in creative writing classes: “Show, don’t tell.”

    You are already an excellent study in leadership by example. Just continue doing what you’re doing, and let your natural instincts guide you. We really ARE paying attention to your actions, and the support you receive for each new project should give you a feeling of confidence that your message really IS being received, even in the absence of a lot of talking.

  • I criticized Roz’s decision to replace her “anti-climate change” stance with “pro-sustainability”.

    I pretty much agree with the comments that followed, and I want to make clear that I’m not suggesting that being anti- global warming is enough. My point is that solutions only have meaning in the context of a specific, stated, problem.

    Without a criterion, the merit of a proposed solution can’t be judged. Scammers love “sustainability” because (in the lexicon of government) you can “sustain” anything with a sufficiently large tax. In my area a grotesquely expensive and inefficient boutique “high speed ferry” boondoggle has captured the imagination of local officials. (It will be “sustained” by tacking the cost onto the sales tax.) 2 or 3 more projects of that ilk, and no money will be left for real solutions to global warming.

    Compassion fatigue is a similar problem. Grant too much mind share to even 1 or 2 (relatively) small issues (like health care reform) and insufficient enthusiasm will remain available for tackling the big, hard problem of global warming. If you believe in the 350.org premise, we must make it issue #1, or the scale of the solutions won’t reach critical mass.

    There is a HUGE semantic difference between being “anti-climate change” and being “pro-sustainability”:

    To arrest global warming, we ought to end most mining of coal and oil in the next 2 or 3 decades.

    On the other hand, one could (economically) “sustainably” burn coal and oil at present levels for several hundred years (substituting coal for oil, as oil runs out). If you don’t believe in global warming, that’s a fine sustainable vision.

    If what you (covertly) mean by “sustainability” is “reduce CO2 levels to 350 ppm and then sustain that level”, then you have merely obfuscated our cause the point where not even our friends recognize our goal.

    To change topic slightly, I’ll aver that being evenhanded is no virtue when it comes to defending the truth. Our press makes a grave mistake in attempting to treat as equally plausible the arguments for and against the existence of evolution, or for and against the existence of human-caused global warming. In both cases, the deniers’ arguments are of laughably low quality, or attack a straw man, but unfortunately they gain undeserved credibility in being positioned side-by-side with the scientific story. Your post above essentially does the same thing. My suggestion: Don’t be part of the problem.

    On your trip to Copenhagen, please make of point of telling your companions “it doesn’t matter whether we believe in climate change or not”. I hope they can convince you to return to your old stance, if I haven’t!

    Sincerely, and respectfully, Christopher

  • Please don’t ‘forget’ about Climate Change Roz, despite what the others may say about you or call you. Climate Change is real and true sustainability is but a small part of the way that we can combat it.

  • It really amazes me that this has become such a polarized issue. I really like your post because it lays things out clearly and simply, and it makes sooo much sense. I don’t know why so many people are so “tooth and nail” against the concept of global warming, climate change, and/or sustainability. Like you said, perhaps it’s the wording and terminology. And some might be fearing government regulation, etc. But when I look out at the sky in the hills around Los Angeles, and the air is brown…well, it doesn’t matter what the terminology is or what the government says, it’s sooo obvious that something needs to be done. All the nay-sayers should spend a few days somewhere where you can actually see the pollution in the sky, breathe it in for a few days. Maybe it would make more sense to them then.

    Anyway…I ramble. But thank you for continuing in your efforts. Your focus and clear headedness, along with your abilities to draw major attention to this issue is definitely much needed!

  • It is difficult to communicate a complete and thorough thought without overtaxing our “word budget” or “attention budget.” Concise phrases and sound bites are the enemy of true communication and understanding. But the posts on this page complement each other. I find the collaboration helpful to expand on the thought Roz initially expressed. Coincidentally, yesterday a Facebook friend posted a link to a magnificent movie I think will expand our mutual understanding …

    HOME is a wonderfully clear explanation of how we got to where we are. The final ten minutes summarize innovative and practical projects that are already under way — positive and hopeful.

  • Excellent points. Doesn’t really matter if the climate is changing or how much we have impacted it. What matters is that fossil fuels are not sustainable due to basic supply – pendantic types can argue about whether it is 15 years away or 50, but it WILL HAPPEN within my or my children’s lifetime.

    In fact, I think the whole climate change issue is moot. I think the timeframe between the earliest time we can get shifted to a sustainable energy economy and when oil is practically unavailable is likely to be quite short. After the oil runs out, we will be carbon neutral.

  • It is not the case that oil will run out in our children’s lifetimes. The hotly debated date of “peak oil” is when production will start to decline (for lack of new discoveries), not the date it will run out.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil

    Moreover, hundreds of years of coal remain, and we are rapidly approaching the day when coal derivatives will power most automobiles. I think that the enthusiasm for electric cars in some green circles will soon turn to horror, when China and other countries start burning coal to power their (soon to be electric) cars.

    Indeed, coal has already replaced displaced oil for electricity production in the U.S.. Coal produces 48.5% of our electricity, and oil only 1.6%

    http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=electricity_in_the_united_states

    We would experience runaway greenhouse effects long before we ran out of fossil fuels.

    For a more upbeat point-of-view, I enjoy learning about carbon neutral technologies under development in laboratories around the world, discussed often on the Science Friday podcast.

    http://www.sciencefriday.com/pages/energy.html

  • Sorry, I don’t maintain a personal web site or blog. I do pitch solar (and other green technologies) to people I know, though. I’ll send you my email.

  • It makes much more sense to me that the world seek affordable clean viable energy solutions rather than push against the coal and oil industry. I am in total agreement with Roz about this subject matter. The focus should be absolutely be on solutions NOT on the problem. Nothing good comes from acting out of fear.

  • Activity that doesn’t reduce a problem isn’t a solution. It’s just activity.

    Producing clean energy doesn’t reduce dirty energy. Energy consumption isn’t constant–it tends to increase to match production.

    Developing clean energy is obviously crucial to our planetary need to replace fossil fuels, but only law can actually reduce coal and oil production as fast as necessary. Otherwise clean energy will simply be consumed in addition to dirty energy. In the U.S. the government owns most potential oil and coal fields. An obvious first step to reducing coal and oil production here is to stop issuing new oil and coal leases!

    The NRDC suggests timely opportunities to contact public officials to this end:

    http://www.nrdcactionfund.org/

    (Aside: Practically every life saving innovation I can name comes from acting out of fear.)

  • DALLAS – Oil industry behemoth Exxon Mobil’s earnings rose to $10.49 billion in the third quarter, the second-largest quarterly profit ever recorded by a publicly traded U.S. company. Its share price briefly rose to a 52-week high.

    The report Thursday comes as high crude prices this year have fueled record profits in the oil industry, triggering an outcry from consumers who were being asked to pay about $3 a gallon for gasoline in early August.

    The largest quarterly profit ever was Exxon Mobil Corp.’s $10.71 billion profit in the fourth quarter of 2005.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15426390/

    Do you honestly think USA has been in Iraq and Afghanastan to fight terrorism and fight for people’s freedom? Do you seriously think you are going to fight the government for laws regarding the use of these products? I say if that is what you want to do go for it but don’t try to discourage others who prefer to seek alternative solutions because in my mind anyway the only way to stop being dependant is to become independant.

  • In my mind anyway fighting city hall is a waste of time. For the sake of this world and humanity people need to learn how to take their power back!

  • I don’t discourage others who seek cleaner energy. (I’m heavily invested in PV, and encourage others who can to do the same.)

    I discourage the pretense that additional, cleaner, energy is an alternative solution to global warming. Only actions that reduce CO2 emissions can call themselves solutions.

    New energy sources do not displace old energy sources. If they did, the United States would be energy independent today.

    Since the arab oil embargo of 1973 the federal government has been encouraging coal production, and coal production has doubled since then, from 599 million short tons to 1,171 million short tons.

    http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/coal.html

    How much did that reduce oil imports?

    Not one bit: Oil imports tripled since 1973, from 3.244 million barrels per day to 9.783 million barrels per day, even though domestic production fell only 4.244 million barrels per day during this time.

    http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=PET&s=MCRIMUS2&f=A

    Although automobile efficiency made great strides during this time, U.S. gasoline consumption didn’t decrease. Instead it increased 36%, from 2.436 billion barrels to 3.290 billion barrels (annually).

    The reason is straightforward: Consumption will always expand to match supply.

    Globally, we must restrict production. Domestically, we should restrict consumption. Even with a 43% population increase, there’s no good reason we should consume more than we did in 1973, considering even greater improvements in fuel efficiency.

    http://www.pewfuelefficiency.org/docs/cafe_history.pdf

  • I’d like to retract my claim in last night’s post, that the increase in U.S. coal production would have made us energy independent, if not for our increased consumption. I’d read this claim elsewhere, but I checked the numbers myself tonight, and it’s not quite true.

    Between 1973 and 2008 coal production increased by 572 million short tons.

    That’s roughly 11,433 trillion BTU of energy.

    That’s the rough equivalent of 1,971 million barrels of oil per year, or 5.396 million barrels per day.

    http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/kids/energy.cfm?page=about_energy_conversion_calculator-basics

    Although that would indeed have been enough to completely eliminate our 1973 imports (3.244 million barrels per day), it’s not quite enough to offset the decline in domestic production experienced in that interval (4.244 million barrels per day) as well.

    If new energy (coal) displaced old energy (oil) rather than adding to the available supply we’d still be importing 2.092 million barrels of oil per day; –less than in 1973, and much less than today’s 9.783 million barrels per day, but still not quite “energy independent” as I averred.

    The practical conclusion is the same, however. If we want to cut imports, we have to cut imports explicitly. Introducing a new energy source (be it coal, solar, nuclear, wind) will not naturally displace oil imports (because someone can always find uses for more energy if it becomes available).

    • Christopher, as an economist, I think the “cut imports” mantra is not always as clear cut as it initially sounds. If supply is finite, wouldn’t it make economic sense to import all we can while leaving our own supply untapped? The U.S. would then eventually emerge as the sole source of energy for the world. In addition, the eventual poverty that would be inflicted on those countries whose economies solely or mostly depend on oil exports, would ignite a whole new set of destructive economic and social problems.

  • (Aside: Practically every life saving innovation I can name comes from acting out of fear.)
    ———-
    Fear is an ancient control tactic. Much, much more is accomplished when people act out of love.

  • Your recommendation echoes my own. There is so much we can do and that needs to be done simply to make the planet more livable and sustainable. Rivers need to be cleaned, air quality needs to be maintained. You’re right…let’s get focused on pollution, push the climate change debate off the page and get some important work done. I recall shaking my head looking out the window of my train passing through the northeast corridor…the rear axle of a car was lying in the water. Federal climate spending from 2003 to 2010 exceeded $100 billion, but for some reason, resources are not available to deal with something as obvious as a greasy car axle sticking out of the water only a few miles from a very impressive EPA building in CT. If we can’t get the very basics of pollution control right, how on earth can we expect to achieve something so grand as bending climate change to our will?

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